Rhett Pennell’s cartoon characters have popped up in countless kids’ picture books, splashed their zany entreaties from commercial toy packages, and morphed into stuffed-animal form. As an industrial designer/illustrator for Shelcore Toys and a freelancer with such heavy-hitters as Fisher-Price, Disney, Toys R Us, PlayWow, and Nickelodeon, he’s seen his work reproduced in various forms around the world — and frequently runs into his own creations in surprise locales.
“It’s always fun to troll the booths at Smiley’s Flea Market in Fletcher and find people selling used toys I’ve worked on … or parts of toys,” he says.
“Often, by the time I’ll find something in a garage sale, a lot of pieces are missing. I recently spent a quarter to buy the five remaining cardboard blocks of a 10-block ‘Stacking Block’ set I had illustrated. I was told the rest had been eaten by the family dog.”
But wherever they appear, Pennell’s animals and people share a distinguishing feature: compelling eyes. They might be large, eager eyes, emoting a determination for fun. Other characters’ eyes are deep and emotional.
And then there’s Ugmo the Ogre, an engaging purple figure who gazes at the world from just one eye. But that single blue orb is wide-open and unforgettable.
The large eyes are “not intentional,” says the artist. “In fact, I have to fight against it. I’m addicted to [drawing them].”
And the effect is “not due to any [Japanese-animation] Manga influences — it’s a personal problem,” jokes Pennell, theorizing that he probably draws those expansive eyes “because my own are so tiny and squinty.”
But seriously: “Eyes are the window to the soul,” he acknowledges, “and my characters have really big souls.”
With his wife and daughter, Pennell (who works mostly from home) relocated to Hendersonville after stints in West Virginia and in a woodsy area of New Jersey. He concedes that the colorful bear statues on Main Street are easier to deal with than the predatory real ones the family encountered up north. But it’s the southern-mountain region’s warm, artsy vibe that clinched the decision.
“We couldn’t face another soul-crushing winter,” says Pennell. He even admits that a psychic offered some good advice. The illustrator and his wife Margaret were told: “‘You’re creative people. Go where creative people go.’” (Margaret runs the Hendersonville-based kids’ theater group Mother Goose Troop, for which Pennell writes, composes, paints, and acts.)
A fan of “titans of the field” including Sendak and Seuss, Pennell says he learned to draw from studying classic comic books — but can’t imagine actually creating that way today.
“All those pages of endless little panels to fill in. It makes me shudder,” he says humorously. “I long ago succumbed to the lures of digital art. I taught myself how to use Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator while working on the art for my second children’s book, and haven’t looked back since.”
Nevertheless, his process is meticulous. “I’m an indecisive artist, and am never happy with a line unless I’ve erased it five or six times to find the right angle. With my Mac, I can draw that line, angle it any way I please, and not spend the rest of the day brushing eraser shavings off my lap.
“My method,” he explains, “is to create the basic structures of an image in Illustrator, where you can mold shapes like clay, and then pop those rough images into Photoshop, where I can add highlights and shadows and paint it up. If I’m not happy with the results, then I’ll take a step back and try some rough sketches to see if there’s a more energetic way to arrange the image.
“I’ll admit it’s all a bit backwards … but it works for me.”
Right now, Pennell is “deep in the art” for a children’s picture book, among other projects, but says he has to be ready to “put it all aside” if he gets a Fisher-Price gig. Their deadlines, he says, “can be nuts.”
Pennell has produced images for some of the company’s most recognizable licensed brands, including Jake and the Never Land Pirates. However, he says his dream job would be designing for Fisher-Price’s Imaginext line. “It’s castles, monsters, aliens, superheroes … Imaginext really seems to be the most interesting stuff out there, to me.” The figures are also, he adds, “the direct descendant of my absolute favorite toys of all time: Fisher-Price’s Great Adventure line from the 1990s.”
He describes that now-almost-vintage series as “an endless armada of grumpy little eyeless knights, pirates, and cowboys — but the love of the toy designers for their work shines out in the details. Every molded bullet hole is a work of art.”
In his upcoming talk at Blue Ridge Community College, Pennell will discuss opportunities for aspiring children’s-book illustrators (in today’s fiercely competitive market) and budding toy designers.
“Really, the only things I can speak about with authority are my own experiences … which involve a lot of stumbling into stuff,” he says.
“I’ve made an interesting life for myself surviving on creativity.”
Rhett Pennell’s talk, “Toy Design: The Business of Child’s Play,” happens May 11, 11:30am-12:30 pm, in the Cortland Room of Blue Ridge Community College’s Technology Education and Development Center (part of the Brown Bag Series of the Blue Ridge Center for Lifelong Learning). $5. See brcll.com for more information.